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Central Africa on brink of all-out conflict

Zaire-Rwanda crisis: Ethnic battles loom in Kinshasa as strategic towns fall to the invaders and their local allies
Zaire and Rwanda were heading yesterday for a conflict that could engulf central Africa, as the Rwandan army and its local allies took control of large parts of eastern Zaire. The Tutsi allies control the major towns of Bukavu and Uvira, and are on the point of taking Goma.

As hundreds of thousands of refugees in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu fled before the fighting, the ethnic battles threatened to explode in the capital, Kinshasa. Thousands of university students swarmed through the streets demanding all-out war with neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi and shouting for the Tutsi rebels' defeat. Tutsis, who are among some of Zaire's most successful entrepreneurs and professionals, are packing up and leaving, fearing a witch-hunt. On Thursday, the transitional parliament called for Tutsis to be sacked from the army, the civil service and state-run companies.

Panicking residents streamed out of the border town of Goma as Zairean and Rwandan soldiers fought in the streets and Tutsi rebels battled for control of the airport, the aid life-line for hundreds of thousands of refugees. "There are RPA [Rwandan Patriotic Army] troops in uniforms in the centre of Goma city, the main square," said a diplomat in Rwanda, who declined to be identified. "They came in by land and across Lake Kivu on boats, landing on the city beach." Another diplomat said: "We are 110 per cent certain the RPA is in Goma."

Rwandan officials, however, denied troops of the Tutsi-led Rwandan government army were in Zaire. "There are categorically no RPA troops in Goma despite the heavy shelling we received from Zaire," a Rwandan government spokesman, Major Wilson Rutayisire, said in Kigali.

"If we continue to receive such provocations, such attacks on the part of the Zairean army, we have the right to defend ourselves and to engage in defensive action against the Zairean army if that continues," the Rwandan Foreign Minister Anastase Gasana said.

Radio reports said 100 foreigners were trapped in a cathedral in the centre of Bukavu, a provincial capital 60 miles south of Goma at the southern end of Lake Kivu. Thirty-five miles north of Goma, 200,000 terrified Hutu refugees were fleeing the fighting.

Tutsis, backed by the Rwandan army, are fighting to repel Zairean army attacks and to push Rwandan Hutu refugees further into Zaire. A Reuter photographer, Corinne Dufka, confirmed yesterday that Bukavu fell to the rebels on Wednesday. Ms Dufka, who was in the town throughout the fighting, said the Zairean military and allied militiamen fled, followed by tens of thousands of people, in the hours before the rebels entered the town. She said the ethnic Tutsi Banyamulenge rebels, who were well equipped with mortars, were well disciplined and had not looted the town. She saw 28 people who had been executed by the Zairean army before the troops fled. After capturing Bukavu the rebels then closed in on Goma.

The Zairean Prime Minister, Kengo wa Dondo, claimed yesterday that the army had retaken Bukavu and Uvira.There are only a few outposts in South Kivu that are occupied by the enemy," he told journalists in Kinshasa.

Heavy cross-border artillery and mortar fire continued through yesterday. A shell fired from Zaire exploded in the main market of Gisenyi, Rwanda, across the border from Goma, and wounded several people. The artillery attack sent about 5,000 residents fleeing.

About 10,000 to 15,000 Rwandan troops were attacking from inside Zaire and from the Rwandan side of the border, said a Zairean military spokesman, Victor Masandi.

Tutsis moved into the area of Zaire north of Lake Kivu about 60 years ago, and have lived in Zairean territory south of the lake for at least 200 years. Last month Zairean officials ordered those in South Kivu, the Banyamulenge, to leave.

On Thursday, Raymond Chretien, the new UN envoy to Central Africa, said in New York that he would stop in Lausanne to see the Zairean President, Mobutu Sese Seko, before he leaves for the region in the coming week. Mr Mobutu, 66, underwent surgery for prostate cancer in Lausanne's University Hospital in August.

The fighting is fuelling a refugee crisis that threatens to match the 1994 exodus of 1.1 million Rwandan Hutus, who fled to Zaire fearing reprisals for the Hutu massacre of Tutsis. Should aid workers leave, Zaire, with negligible resources, would be left to feed 700,000 refugees in camps near Lake Kivu.